Parenting doesn’t come with a manual. I think so many of us try really hard to do it the “right” way. Without really knowing what the right way is. Or if there is one. And if there is no right way, is there a wrong way? Well…Yes. You can find out the wrong ways by contacting CPS for a list. But for our purposes, I’m just going to tell you the right way. I kid. I have no idea what I’m doing. I met my husband when my kids were 12 and almost 9. So while I would describe my basic parenting style as “floundering,” the boys are healthy, smart, and kind. We had made it past the “constant vigilance” years of childhood and were entering an era of independence. A time when I would no longer need to watch them continuously to make sure they didn’t stick a fork in an outlet. I could sit back, have some time to myself, and listen for the sounds that meant one of them was going to stick a fork into his brother.
Then I met Dave, and we had a whirlwind romance that blew us right into marriage and a bigger family. The best hasty decision I’ve ever made. Dave’s daughter K was 3 at the time, almost 4. So I knew I would be entering back into the “littles” stage, but I thought I could probably deal. She thought I was great fun, and the boys were so good with her. And it never changed. The end.
Right. So if parenting doesn’t come with a manual, step-parenting really doesn’t. Because (if you take abuse out of the picture, which I generally do) there really isn’t a right way. If you think you’re destined to be wrong with parenting choices, just try step-parenting. THERE IS NO RIGHT ANSWER. Are you giving your own children enough attention? Are you showing your own children preferential treatment? Are you showing the step-child preferential treatment to avoid showing your children preferential treatment? I can’t make big parenting decisions, which is so hard because I have SO MANY opinions. If I do something special with her am I taking away something from her mother? If I feed her a new food will we get sued (no shit)? One moment she’s running into my room in panties to do a booty dance and the next moment she is screaming that I saw her boobies when I helped her out of her shirt (This stuff especially keeps me up at night because:; what do you DO?! I would tell my own kid to shut his pie hole and cover his boobies if it was such a big deal! But again, I am on shaky stepmom ground). If I act like a mom I could confuse her. If I act like a friend that’s not fair to my kids. Oh my god I am basically a nanny that sleeps with her dad. These are just some of the things I swish through my mind at 1 am while my husband snores happily by my side, because everything is perfect.
K is 6 1/2 now. She is still sweet and kind. She is brilliant (like maybe a genius, for real) and funny. She is also a bossy, picky, snarky, nosy little monster. She is full of curiosity and empty of filters. She says exactly what is on her mind at that moment and damn the consequences. She looks at me last week and says, “I’m glad you’re not an evil stepmother.” I waited for a second before responding, “Me too….what have you been watching…?” “Oh nothing. I’ve just been thinking about it. And I’m glad you’re not evil.” I responded honestly, “I’m glad you’re not evil either.” Because, personally I think (Outside of Disney) there is a way higher chance of evil girl children than evil step-mothers. I resumed packing things that she had unceremoniously dumped in the back of my car; I put some empty containers in her backpack, then I had this container full of ranch from her lunch. There was about 30 seconds that I couldn’t think of a logical place to put this (and verbalized my confusion) where it wouldn’t make a mess. Then I said “Oh! I’ll put it in one of the empties!” K says, totally deadpan, “I was thinking that but I wanted to give you a chance to figure it out for yourself.” I was flooded with mixed emotions. On the one hand I wanted to laugh, on the other hand I wanted to kick her into the street. I ended up laughing because she’s 6, and there were people around. I’m not trying to start a sexist rant here, but having 2 boys, and now having a girl; they are very different animals. They show love differently, they play with me differently, they misbehave differently. When Ryan gets in trouble he stomps away, teary, slams a door, and typically yells something through it to make it even worse. Alex tilts his head and sing songs “I love you too mom…” (Which makes me want to kick him). When K gets in trouble she looks at you with huge, watery eyes and says “I’m sorry I’m bad. Do you still love me?” At which point my husband usually (he’s gotten better) falls all over himself to assuage this fear of hers. While I’m over here like “Oh, I see you, manipulative little female. I am you….”
So back to the fear, the mom guilt, and a bunch of “supposed tos.” I’m supposed to love this child like my own. I’m supposed to treat her like my own. A couple of months ago I had an epiphany: When I think about how I’m supposed to treat her, or feel about her, I’m thinking about that ideal that is in my head. That “supposed to” that I torture myself with. It’s not actually how I parent. It’s not actually how I act. I DO treat her like my own kids. I hug her, I reward her, I tell her she’s awesome. I help with homework, I assign chores, I force vegetables. I demand respect and I take no shit. I’m raising her. I’m not her friend. You can throw as many adjectives before my title as you want. I’m a parent. And she has 3. And maybe I’m the only one who says sass is a no go. And maybe I (was) the only one that made her say please. But you know what, she listens. She hears me. And I do love her like I do my own children. Which is to say, completely, absolutely, and unconditionally. But just like my children, I don’t like her all the time. Does that make me bad? Yeah probably. But that’s real. I love all 3 of them. I would stand in front of a train for any of them (funny story about Dave saying this to Ryan and him being very confused about why Dave would say this, and Ryan wanted to assure him that he did not expect Dave to step in front of a train to prove that he loved him.), and at times I want to kick them into the street. There is a great quote by Anne Lammot, which I cannot find, so I’m going to butcher it: She talks about new motherhood, and the unimaginable emotions that come with being a mother (or parent). The idea that at one moment it is nearly painful to love another being this much, and the next moment you want to throw them out the window. THAT is parenthood. Natural, step, adopted, it doesn’t matter. I have a dear friend that adopted 3 boys out of foster care. 3 unique stories of rough beginnings. She is one of the most amazing mothers I know. You KNOW she loves them unconditionally. And you KNOW she puts up with no shit. Because she’s a parent. Not because of biology, because she just fucking is. No one makes you prove that you can have a child when you become pregnant. No one is there to pick apart your life and see if you are really eligible to have a kid. Being an adoptive parent, or a stepparent means you have to open up your life to be judged and picked through to see if you are good enough, those children are earned in a way that biological children are not.
My boys had a stepmother before I became one. I will admit, in the beginning, I wasn’t thrilled with this situation. God forbid they call me her name after a weekend away. But I forced my way over that stupid, insecure hurdle. How can it be wrong to have more people to love my children? How can it be a bad thing that there are more people to hug them, catch them, help them, hold them, be there for them? Because it’s not about me. That’s the thing with having kids, it’s never about you, ever again. Bye-bye ego. So I do what I think (hope) is best for my boys, and for my girl. She’s better with 3 parents, and my boys are better with 4.
The other day K got off the bus and I picked her up from the stop. The drive home is our check in time. She has no fear. She says everything that is on her mind. I ask her to tell me the best part of the day, and the worst. I learn so much about her in that 5 minutes (although the favorites are always lunch and PE), she is truly a remarkable little person. After a rough day at school she asked me why some people are so mean, why some kids are so hurtful. I told her that some people are like that. I told her that a lot of times kids start out kind, and caring, and they change. That as they grow they decide to shed those parts because they think it makes them stronger. She thought for a moment, then said, “I think being kind makes you strong. I hope I don’t change.” I agreed.